Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maple Pecan Shortbread Bars ("it's just like pecan pie mum")

I cook often and bake rarely. So when I first posted about the NYT article on food and life which featured a beef stew and maple shortbread bars, I wholly expected myself to make only the beef stew and not ever get around to the shortbread bars.

Life and a thing called Mothers' Day intervened and I have since made the shortbread bars twice but have yet to make the beef stew - although I have high hopes that there will be pockets of free time in June for that recipe.

The shortbread bar recipe yields a buttery and ridiculously sweet dessert reminiscent of pecan pie but is unfortunately expensive to make in Singapore. Much of the cost comes from just two ingredients: maple syrup and pecans. Maple syrup is easily found in supermarkets (do not be fooled by the deceptively named maple flavoured syrup - it is not the same and will not taste the same) but I had to hunt for the pecans in specialty nut shops. Both turned out to be costly which is why this is not a recipe that will be in regular rotation in my house. If it hadn't been for mothers' day and a mother who loves pecan pie, I really might not have baked this a second time.

The upside is that this is a criminally easy recipe. Only the shortbread base requires a little work. My tip for those baking this in hot weather is to first cut the chilled butter into little cubes then freeze it for about ten minutes. Then instead of cutting the butter into the flour and sugar - a process I find near impossible in the tropics - simply place the lot into the bowl of a food process and process until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.

The recipe yields bars that taste somewhat like pecan pie - but my pecan pie loving mother was not fooled. 'Why does it look like that?' was her suspicious response to my offering. I had to explain that the pecans were there, just chopped up and that this wasn't really pecan pie but was very similar. Still she liked it and ate it which is a miracle since my mother is known to be the Pickiest Eater Alive.

I have also reduced the brown sugar by a third in the recipe below. Mr Grey and I were foolish enough to put in the entire amount called for the first time we baked this and the result was so tooth-achingly sweet, we couldn't bear to eat it. Diabetes inducing, a friend called it.

(The recipe was originally named Maple Shortbread Bars but good grief, if I'm going to shell out that much money for pecans then pecans are going into the name too.)


Time: 55 minutes

For the crust:

2 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled

For the filling:

1 cup packed brown sugar

2/3 cup real maple syrup

2 eggs

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon maple extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups chopped pecans.

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F. For crust, combine flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Cut butter into slices, and cut in with pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture is crumbly. If making this in the hot weather, see note above. Press into bottom and half an inch up the sides of a 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Bake 15 minutes, or until edges begin to brown. Cool on rack.

2. For filling, combine all ingredients except pecans, and mix until smooth. Pour into cooled crust. Distribute nuts evenly over top. Bake 30 minutes, or until filling is set. Cool on a rack before cutting.

Yield: 39 bars.

Note: I omitted the maple extract, it being an ingredient that just could not be found in Singapore.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Food writing

No recipe today but a food article I re-discovered.

Years ago, I read this article about the Zuni Cafe  and the memory of it has lurked in the shadows of my mind ever since.  At the time I read it, the description of the cafe and the bay area held a special significance. I read it at a time when plans for a trip to the bay area, along with certain other future plans had suddenly and quite abruptly evaporated. I read it and it caught at my heart in a certain way. It seemed to capture the smell and taste of what had been lost. I put it away quickly and tried to forget.

I found it again, this week and it caught at me again. But this time, it was different. I was different and I was better able to appreciate it for what it was.

This is an article about a lunch at the famous Zuni Cafe but unlike other food review articles which go on and on, fatuously and pretentiously, Francis Lam has managed to capture the most elusive thing - the moment. The sunlight slanting in, the family at the next table, the food.... it is all there, you can almost feel the sun on your cheeks.


Lately, I've had a few conversations with friends about writing in Singapore - they observed, and I agree with their observation - that a great deal of local writing is overblown, pretentious and just... too try hard.

I was once told by someone, that the way to tell if a piece of Chinese calligraphy is good is to see if the words breathe naturally. That is, to observe if the brushstrokes flow as naturally as breathing. I have found it to be quite sound advice generally and I think, in some ways, it also applies to writing.

As a reader, I wish local writers would relax a little, breathe. There is no need to try to show how clever you are in every line. There is no need to show that you can use difficult polysyllabic words. Sometimes, a bicycle ride in the rain, is simply a bicycle ride in the rain.

Extract from the article:

"I thought about the fact that all over this city, friends were already gathering in happy anticipation and, though I was alone, this family was good company to be in.

The Caesar came, nothing new and utterly perfect, bright lemon and sharp garlic, mellow anchovies, crisp greens, crunchy croutons. The burger was as tender as a you would ever want a hamburger to be, yet it had a sort of magical spring to the bite, an integrity. Its flavor was buttery, almost creamy, round and meaty but not in that bloody, mineral way. It was gentler than that. I ate it quickly, too quickly, but not out of hunger or greed. I ate fast so as not to let the spirit of it escape, vanish with the steam coming off it."

Note: The other thing about local writing of course, is that a great deal of it is abysmal in a different way. What I said above does not apply to people who cannot seem to write grammatically and who seem to have disabled the spell check function on their word processors.